Prosecutors in Puerto Rico have smashed a ring of current and former U.S. Transportation Security Administration workers that allegedly smuggled 20 tons of cocaine worth as much as $100 million into the U.S. over more than a decade.
A dozen members of the alleged ring, including TSA workers and airport employees, were indicted Feb. 8 in the District of Puerto Rico on charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, U.S. Attorney for the District of Puerto Rico Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez announced. Authorities said the federal employees used their positions as TSA baggage screeners to wave massive amounts of coke through security.
The charges point to an insider threat, a congressional source told Fox News, saying the suspects could have smuggled explosives instead of drugs.
“These individuals were involved in a conspiracy to traffic massive quantities of illegal narcotics to the continental United States,” Rodríguez-Vélez said.
“These individuals were involved in a conspiracy to traffic massive quantities of illegal narcotics to the continental United States.”
Beginning in 1998, some three years before the formation of the TSA, the suspects allegedly smuggled suitcases containing up to 15 kilograms of cocaine through the TSA security system at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan, prosecutors said. As many as five “mules,” or human smugglers, were used on each flight, with each checking in up to two suitcases, according to authorities.
During the 18-year conspiracy, the suspects sent 20 tons of cocaine into the U.S., according to prosecutors.
The development comes on the back of a House Homeland Security report last week that found gross irregularities in employee screening at major airports.
“After nearly two years of oversight efforts, the Subcommittee found that a majority of airports do not have full employee screening at secure access points,” the report stated. “These airports are unable to demonstrate the security effectiveness of their existing employee screening efforts, which consist largely of randomized screening by TSA officers or airport law enforcement personnel.”
The defendants include six current and former TSA employees at the airport: José Cruz-López, Luis Vázquez-Acevedo, Keila Carrasquillo, Carlos Rafael Adorno-Hiraldo, Antonio Vargas-Saavedra and Daniel Cruz-Echevarría. All were security and baggage screeners for checked and carry-on luggage that was to be placed on outbound flights.
The suspects allegedly worked with co-defendants including Edwin Francisco Castro, Luis Vázquez-Acevedo and Ferdinand López, who were described as facilitators between the drug trafficking organizations and the TSA employees. Defendant Miguel Ángel Pérez-Rodríguez, who worked for the airport security company, was identified as the cocaine supplier.
The ring also included a baggage handler with Airport Aviation Services, Javier Ortiz, who allegedly picked up the cocaine-packed suitcases at the airline check-in counter and put them into the X-Ray machines monitored by the TSA suspects, who cleared them. After the suitcases had been cleared, Ortiz allegedly took them to their designated flights, making sure no police or K-9 units intervened.
Ortiz also paid the TSA employees for their roles, prosecutors said. They did not say how much.
Other suspects included an alleged mule and another person who prosecutors said helped load luggage onto planes.
“This investigation was initiated by TSA as part of its efforts to address employee misconduct and specific insider threat vulnerabilities. TSA has zero tolerance for employees engaged in criminal activity to facilitate contraband smuggling,” said José Baquero, federal security director for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The suspects face 10 years to life in prison if convicted.
Fox News' Catherine Herridge contributed to this report.